Emile Griffith, the first gay world champion boxer, fighting Brian Curvis

Due in part to the reductiveness of historical narrative -which asks in exchange for a comprehensible story that we discard the limitless complexity of individuals’ lives- we tend not to understand that the past had the same rich diversity of human experience as the present. Pat ideas about the nature of generations preceeding ours are gospel; for every decade, an animating quality is ascribed to societies no poorer than our own in vitality, diversity, confusion: we think of the 1950s, for example, as a time of conformity and repression, and the pop-cultural treatments which represent it are constructed according to those notions.

But wherever we encounter history, we thrill and despair at the realization that the past was as dynamic and varied as the present, and that time has a repetitive quality as a result: while we believe that our time is different from others, almost everything we take as distinctive has its antecedents, its parallels, its previous incarnations.

Reading James Ellroy’s lunatic autobiography of his youth, marked by his mother’s brutal, unsolved murder and his own bizarre reaction to it, provides an excellent reminder of this. Replete with references to the hideous crimes, desperate delusions, twisted and weird characters, neurotic and deviant behavior, and general alienation that existed at the margins of 1950s boomtown California society, My Dark Places problematizes any easy idea of what America once was.

It also points to innumerable cultural watersheds that turned out not to be watersheds at all: definitional moments that might have been in our popular memory of the time but somehow are not. For my part, I’d never heard -for example- of Emile Griffith.

Griffith was an extremely successful boxer, a world champion whose career is comparable to any legend of the sport, and he was also gay. His homosexuality was not precisely a secret, although newspapers didn’t report it and it wasn’t discussed. Within the boxing world, however, it was well-known enough that Griffith’s great rival Benny Paret taunted him before matches with homophobic slurs.

In their third match, in 1962, Griffith beat Paret to death. The fight -televised on NBC- was a scandal, prompting networks to cease airing bouts for a decade and plunging Griffith into a nightmare of guilt and depression that colored the rest of his life.

Griffith’s story -told well, if at points mawkishly, in this fascinating essay- is an amazing one for innumerable reasons, not least his insistence later in life that his sexuality ought not be reduced:

I like men and women both. But I don’t like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don’t know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.

Griffith was beaten nearly to death leaving a gay bar in 1992, and now suffers from pugilistic dementia. The sad, strange story of his sexuality in a violent sport touches on many of the great themes of 20th century America: the press, the world of sport, the ideas of masculinity, the way small cultures can vary in tolerance -in surprising ways- from the culture at large, the wages of violence, and the experience of sexual and racial minorities in the US.

Echoing the epitaph of gay Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich, Griffith lamented that while many -including Paret’s son- could forgive him for killing a man, fewer could forgive him for loving one. My Dark Places is filled with examples of how love and violence shift and refract through one another -the rage of love turned inward- and is at once the most appallingly honest autobiography of which I’m aware and an incredible dispatch from an era long gone and still present, when a world champion could be sexually different and be both accepted and punished for it, an ambiguous time more like our own than one might want to admit.

Note: the excellent DH makes the point that in order not to engage in the reductive labelling I critique, I ought not refer to Griffith as “gay”; I do so mainly because the consensus among writers seems to be that he was in fact gay but remains partly closeted. But it is up to the individual, not to the crowd, to make such determinations, so while I deferred to convention here I did so in violation of my own point and that should be noted.


Former welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith passed away today in a Hempstead, New York care facility. He was seventy-five.

Griffith was the first boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands to ever hold a world championship and likely the first bisexual boxer to hold a title. He also participated in The Ring magazine’s 1967 Fight of the Year and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame the very first year of its existence. Unfortunately, his name is most closely tied not with his accomplishments but his nationally-televised accidental murder of Benny “the Kid” Paret. It was a national tragedy that changed boxing - and Griffith - forever.

They had fought twice before, each with a victory and a loss, and their rivalry had grown bitter. At the weigh-in, Paret called Griffith a maricon - faggot. It did not matter that Griffith was, in fact, bisexual (Griffith lived with a boyfriend for some time and confirmed in a Sports Illustrated interview that he was attracted to both men and women); it was a dire insult in their cultures, and Griffith had to be restrained from attacking Paret.

On March 24, 1962, Griffith hurt Paret badly in the twelth round and unleashed one of the most brutal barrages in boxing history, landing twenty-one unanswered punches as referee Ruby Goldstein watched. Paret was unconscious, but Griffith’s punches kept him propped on the ropes. By the time Goldstein called off the fight, Paret had lapsed into a coma from which he would never awaken. Once the fight was over, Griffith tried to make his way through the circle of people surrounding Paret, but was rebuffed by Paret’s cornermen. When Paret was sent to the hospital, Griffith tried in vain for hours to gain entrance to see his wounded rival. Nevertheless, many believed that Griffith intentionally killed his opponent. The hate mail rolled in, but it was unnecessary. Griffith would be haunted by the ghost of Benny Paret for the rest of his life. The guilt never left him, down to the day he died.

ABC, which broadcasted the fight live on national television, immediately shut down all its boxing programs, which were not to return until the ‘70s. Those who meant to ban boxing experienced a large swell of support, just as they would later after the death of Duk Koo Kim at the hands of Ray Mancini (which prompted the reduction of championship fights from fifteen rounds to twelve). Having no other means of income, Griffith continued to box. Much like Sugar Ray Robinson after the death of Jimmy Doyle, Griffith lost much of his ferocity forever and elected to fight with more technique than power; his KO percentage fell from 41% to 15%, and he lost fights that he should have won. He retired in 1977 and went on to train triple-champion Wilfred Benitez.

In his last years, Griffith suffered from dementia pugilistica, a form of mental illness caused by blows to the head, causing him first to tremble uncontrollably, then have difficulty speaking. This is immediately apparent in the 2005 documentary The Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, in which Griffith gives interviews about his experiences inside and outside of the ring. The most touching moment of the film comes at the very end. Paret’s son meets Griffith for the first time and gives him his full forgiveness. The two break down and share a tearful embrace. A few short years after the film was made, Griffith’s dementia had worsened to the point that he required full-time care. He was sent off to a facility in Hempstead, New York where the guilt of Paret’s murder was finally lifted today.

Rest in peace, Emile Griffith.

ABDB Ep. 60 Footnote: In Cruz Control

Duane, Rick & Will chatted on homosexuality & homophobia in sports, especially on relevance of any athlete/person feeling obligated to announce their sexual preference to the consuming audience.

In Orlando Cruz, we see the first professional boxer to out himself.

As Will began to reference on the show, over 50 years ago, a homophobic slur between Benny Paret & Emile Griffith at the weigh-in before their third rumble created the landscape for tragedy, intended or not…

The WMDs wish all of the very best for Mr. Cruz. We also give props to Cruz’ first opponent since coming out, Jorge Pazos, who could have easily succumbed to a general conditioning about homosexuality, especially in light of the hypermasculinity of sport.


Emile Griffith vs. Benny “The Kid” Paret III

March 24, 1962

It had been a blistering back-and-forth battle between two men who genuinely despised one another. One year prior, on April Fool’s Day, 1961, Virgin Islander Emile Griffith took Cuban Benny “The Kid” Paret’s World and the Ring welterweight belts in a stunning thirteenth-round knockout; later that year, Paret would reclaim his titles in a split decision victory. Both men nursing grudges, they fought without reservation or restraint. In the sixth round Griffith had been knocked down and almost certainly rendered unconscious by a sharp cross-left hook combination. He’d been lucky then - the bell sounded seconds after he rose. In the twelfth round, their positions were reversed: this time, it was Paret rocked by a series of clean blows (gif row 1). Trapped in a corner and unable to defend himself by any other means, he shelled up. It was a fatal error. Knowingly or unknowingly, Griffith was in position not only to end the fight but his opponent’s life…

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